What Does Thick Description Do?

Clifford Geertz’s research tool of Thick Description gets handed around enough in my areas of study, religion and philosophy, so it deserves a deeper look.  Often it is treated as the Middle Way between the cold and blind operational definitions of a hard-nosed approach to social sciences and the conceptually muddled, overly-emotional, uncritically committed essays of so much work in the humanities.  Thick Description is an intriguing notion and is certainly a fruitful research pursuit, but I am afraid that it is uncritically embraced as a means of answering research questions.  We see Thick Description as analogous to natural experiments and quasi-experiments.  No one seems to want to address the question of what it is that Thick Description can, in fact, do.  We take for granted that a research tool is for answering research questions.  That is not the case.

Thick Description is an observational study placed within an appropriately detailed context so that the meaning of the behaviors or phenomena under consideration become meaningful to third-party observers.  It is indispensable for an understanding of human psychology and society, culture and practice.  We are variables in a physical equation.  That reduction, though, destroys the meaningfulness  of human activity.  Closing our minds to the realm of meaning and intentionality is not the same thing as explaining that realm away.  (Asking meaning and intentionality to account for themselves in terms of physics or biology or chemistry is a conceptual confusion.)  Thick Description is necessary for tapping into that mysterious realm.

So the question of what Thick Description is capable of doing is an important and ignored question.  I have no clear answers to the question at hand right now, but I do have a couple suggestions on where we might head.  There are a number of phases to any research project, and we need tools for each phase along the way.  In practice, it seems to me, Thick Description is not a strong enough or precise enough tool to avoid conceptual confusions and the mistaking of a researcher’s opinions and assumptions for factual findings.  It simply does not have the built-in safety valves of mathematics and operationalization needed to help check bias, however imperfect those mechanisms may be.   Thick Description, therefore, cannot be used to answer a research question in the way that experiments are employed.

Where Thick Description promises to deepen our understanding is in the initial stages of research: grappling with a problem for the sake of building an initial understanding of the context and issues as well as generating testable hypotheses.  Depending on the genius and insight of researchers to formulate the foundations of a research project is, well, unscientific.  Developing Thick Descriptions can become a method for setting the stage for a research project so that the questions asked are relevant and interesting.

These are just some initial thoughts.  Real work needs to be done if we are to understand Thick Description… or any other aspect of the research process, for that matter.  Simply because we cook up a methodology does not mean we understand its purpose or power.  Let us take nothing for granted, even if we have to take one step at a time and rebuild this boat midstream.

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